Service With a Smile: One characteristic the best service electricians share

Published On
Feb 15, 2021

We asked a random group of electrical contractors one question: “What do you think the best service electricians all have in common?” It was amazing how strikingly similar their responses were.

Before we get to their answers, let’s cover the basic characteristics we believe are necessary.

Many traits and abilities go into making a great service electrician.

Among skilled craftsmen, service electricians are in the position of being “first responders” more than their counterparts in other trades. They have to be ready to solve a problem in a commercial building, an industrial plant, a residential dwelling, a utility installation—the list of possibilities goes on. Service electricians often begin their day just as policemen, firemen and EMTs do: uncertain of where some as-yet-unidentified person or calamity will take them.

Service electricians have to take on a wide range of potential problems and possess a variety of talents and skills.

Yet most of the contractors who responded to our survey landed on the same answer. Universally, our electrical contractors agreed that the one characteristic that the best service electricians all have in common is the ability to communicate.

Here is a sampling of the responses that we received. Universally, electrical contractors agreed that the one characteristic that the best service electricians all have in common is the ability to communicate.

Mitch Larson, director of special projects for Westphal & Co., Madison, Wis., answered our query in one sentence: “I believe the most important characteristic is the ability to communicate.”

Jay Miller, director of service, Baker Electric, Escondido, Calif., added to the communication skills and abilities a qualification that is too often missing in electrical construction: responsiveness.

“Responsiveness doesn’t always mean the fix is quickly figured out and executed. It does mean the best [service electricians] are quick to contact the customer, provide constant and timely updates, and keep their customers informed,” Miller said.

In other words, answer a customer’s call, even if you do not yet have at your fingertips all the definitive information that you would like to provide to them.

This is not a TV game show where you have to buzz in first to beat your opponent. In electrical service and maintenance, your immediate acknowledgment of a customer’s call, even without a complete answer for them, is a priority—especially if the person calling has a supervisor pressing to know how the problem will be fixed.

Failing to respond immediately can most often be tantamount to referring the call to a competitor.

Patrick Hoque, project engineer at Beltline Electric Co., Owensboro, Ky., reiterated the number one answer that we received when he told us, “The first thing that comes to my mind is someone that has exceptional communication skills.”

Hoque also chimed in that the best service electricians “truly care about their craft and customers.”

John Lydon, director of quick response/service at Guarantee Electrical Co., St. Louis, saw the same sort of connection when he combined “communication and the ability to work with any and all types of customers.”

The selection of the name “quick response” for the company’s service operation succinctly sums up Guarantee Electrical’s philosophy of what a successful service and maintenance business unit must be capable of delivering. It is quite reminiscent of how the company got its name in 1902, when its founders “guaranteed” that they would keep the lights on for a full year for the city’s upcoming world’s fair.

David Topp, senior service manager for Lemberg Electric Co. Inc., Brookfield, Wis., reminded us of the most basic definition of “service” in the context we always apply it.

Problem-solving is the first thing that comes to mind,” he said. Great service electricians must possess “the ability to think on their feet.”

However, merely being able to recognize and solve the service-related problem they have been called on to fix will not take electrical contractors as far as they must go. They must also be able to convey a lucid explanation to their customer on the spot.

Andrew Murphy, project manager/estimator at Hartmann Electric Co. Inc., Elk Grove Village, Ill., expressed complete agreement with the importance of communication skills. Often confronted with extraordinary challenges of serving major airlines and customers with uncompromisingly critical needs, he said, takes “a strong work ethic.”

Being the best, we agree, takes hard work.

Denis St. Pierre, COO and executive vice president of Sargent Electric Co., Pittsburgh (a firm whose previous CEO went on to become a columnist in this magazine), reminded us that the makeup of a great service electrician “takes more than one characteristic to be successful.”

While companies like to tout the quality of their service, consistency in their delivery is more important. Borrowing from an old saying, consistency eats quality for breakfast.

Customers will respond far better to consistent service than hit-or-miss genius.

A seasoned professional in the electrical construction field, St. Pierre has had executive oversight of construction and service organizations, which gives him deep insight into the multiple competencies required of the best service electricians. While we have highlighted communication skills, which everyone who responded to our random survey agreed on, he cited a number of other “soft skills” that can rise to equal importance, noting qualities such as “creativity, problem-solving, multitasking, confidence and being customer-focused.”

In quick agreement, Sargent Electric’s president, Rob Smith, reiterated the last of those, to underscore its significance, “customer focus!” His comment provided a fitting coda to our conversations.

After our main discussion was complete, a few participants hung around with some additional thoughts. Three notable ideas emerged from this rump session.

The first came by way of a challenging question: ”How can any contractor really be sure that in the eyes of our customers someone really is among the best of service electricians? After all, service electricians spend most of their time in the field on their own, not in a crew. (That’s why so many of them chose service work to begin with, to avoid having to be part of a larger construction crew).”

Practical solutions that emerged included having a system for collecting customers’ feedback on the service received. This can be done in many ways. The most important part of maintaining such a procedure is in the requirement for a service manager or company executive to read every response that comes in and, where necessary, follow up.

Nothing beats an occasional tag-along day with a service manager going out on calls in the van with the service electrician, especially for visits to high-value customers’ sites.

We were surprised to hear the next of the three big ideas. To paraphrase: While companies like to tout the quality of their service, consistency in their delivery is more important. Borrowing from an old saying, consistency eats quality for breakfast .

To take that thought a step further, the structure of an organization sets the table in the breakfast room . If a service department is structured properly, it will deliver on its mission consistently, with or without the benefit of employing the best of the best. Customers will respond far better to consistent service than hit-or-miss genius.

Finally, we have to recall that communicating is a two-way process. Our service electricians must be able to express themselves. More importantly, though, they must have good listening skills. Service electricians are on the front lines of our industry. We should depend on them to bring back the “market intelligence” that they are in a position to capture. They may not be able to return with complete answers about what’s coming next, but they can certainly bring back many of the questions that will suggest what that next thing may be.

About the Author

Andrew P. McCoy and Fred Sargent

SARGENT is an electrical industry consultant focusing on service expertise. He can be reached at fred@sargent.com. MCCOY is the Preston and Catharine White Fellow and department head of the Department of Building Construction in the Myers-Lawson...

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